Harold Bloom, Weirdness, and Story Drawings

Whenever there is a kind of renaissance in the arts, things start to shift underneath our feet, and a kind of critical re-evaluation happens. Nietzsche talked about this in terms of the transvaluation of values, where what might have been considered “bad” is suddenly considered “good,” or something “low” is “high” or something “dirty” is “clean,” etc. Every moment of our lives is an act of interpretation, and things would get boring if we weren’t having the chance to look at things and see them in new ways. A renaissance happens where there is a bourgeoning, a swelling, a flourishing, and things that had not been seen begin to be seen, like a veil lifted, or a horizon one hadn’t noticed suddenly coming into view. There is a renaissance going on in story drawings—my own eccentric word for graphic novels, born themselves from comic strips and cartoons—and with that renaissance comes the need for thinking about the past, not just in terms of works of art, since new works of art force us to rethink old works of art, but also criticism, since criticism by this point in the history of art, as Harold Bloom always argued, is itself a form of art, both being avenues for viewing representation and figuring out how one might contribute to the tradition of representation that keeps us from becoming violent while directing our violence towards the durable structure of a tradition.

I think it’s time to say that Harold Bloom was the most important critic of the 20th century, and that he prophesied movements going on in the world of graphic novels. Whenever we hear Bloom’s name, we tend to think of him as a cultural conservative, and if we look at academic books on Bloom, books that tried to pin him down with sociological lenses, this image is always reinforced. And there is something pernicious about this endless inscribing of a false image, this endless reification, because Bloom was not the Bloom of the public image, in the same way Walt Whitman is not a “good gray poet,” or Robert Frost some avuncular hey-ho traveling salesman with the latest wares on meter and rhyme. The truth is that Bloom, like Whitman and Frost, is, in the best sense of the word, the most underground of the underground artists, and we fool ourselves into thinking he was anything but.

What does “underground” mean, and why would I associate a professor at Yale, who taught there for 50 years, with that word? Underground to me means something homemade, something that is created out of the need and anguish and joy of creation. It means people who make things because if they didn’t they would lose their minds, or commit suicide, or cut off all ties to the world - and the art created by underground artists is a means for fighting back against all the forces, the bullies, the controllers, the in-the-box thinkers, the fake people, the energy leechers, the pretentious. Underground movements, if they are any good, sooner or later move to some kind of center, even if that center if always shifting, in the same way that our own lives, in our interactions with people at a coffeeshop, with loved ones, with friends online, is itself a kind of greeting and leaving, at every moment. Bloom knew this deeply, and often emphasized that Shakespeare was a kind of center of imaginative literature, just as poets like Emily Dickinson thrived on the margins. Bloom wrote, in The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, “what makes the authors and the works canonical[?] The answer, more often than not, has turned out to be strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.” (Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, Riverhead Books, 1994, pg. 3.)

Strangeness is weirdness is anyone who has had to figure out a way to live by being different and then using one’s abilities and one’s loves to cultivate the talents that came from this odd apartness. Think of Samuel Johnson, or Kafka, or R. Crumb, or Louis Armstrong, or Gabrielle Bell: these are examples of artists who became names in the cultural language of our vocabularies, and yet the names hide lives, and the lives evidence an enormous strength in the face of every imaginable attempt to keep one “in one’s place,” to situate one in a box that might fit the situater but not the one whom people are trying to situate. Bob Dylan, for example - the folk people wanted him to be folk, the rock people didn’t want him to be Christian, and on and on. Artists make boxes for people to stand in, and people don’t like that, because they want to be the boxers. But at the end of the day Dylan made a box for the entire American popular music tradition, with the exception perhaps of jazz, and Bloom was no different.

Bloom was, in the best sense of the word, a freak. I don’t mean a sexual freak. I mean there was something paranormal about him, something that we didn’t really have historically until he came upon the scene. He developed a theory of poetry, though poetry was for him a metaphor for all acts of creation, and therefore all acts of individuation, that did not exist before him, and that changed and continues changing the way we think at all about art and life. His theory, which was called “the anxiety of influence,” is about how children fight against their parents in order to locate their voices within themselves, a fight that happens in art, and therefore a kind of battle of voices, what Bloom called “agon.” We can think of agon as the way in which we fight constantly against various internalized scripts - negative voices from our past, positive voices from our present, voices of all different people warring to get us to fit in a certain way, to be a certain kind of person with certain views so that we don’t freak out the people who hold those views and don’t want to be seen as different. And he developed the theory of the anxiety of influence because he felt that artists were not honest about how they created art; and so Bloom was a kind of moralist, even though he didn’t like that term.

He didn’t like that term because, although Shakespeare was God to him, Samuel Johnson was his master, and Johnson was a moral critic, so Bloom emphasized aesthetics. There has always been a fight in the world of criticism between art and ethics, or the beautiful and the good, and because Bloom didn’t want to be his literary father, Samuel Johnson, he “swerved” away from Johnson (“swerve” is a term Bloom uses in The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry). Bloom felt that artists were dishonest because they did not acknowledge their swerves. They were constantly harping on their originality—and some could be very original, like Wallace Stevens, one of Bloom’s favorite poets—but without acknowledging their debt to a tradition, to one’s parents in whatever tradition one engaged with. And artists did not want to do this for the same reason children say “don’t copy me!” We all want to be ourselves, our own unique people, but that is not easy, because the world hates singularity, since singularity suggests voice, and voice suggests power - not power like force, but power like forceless force, the tang and sweetness and satisfaction of art.

How we read a book is how we read the world, because no moment exists without interpretation. And critics have always historically read Bloom through various lenses that to me always seemed to say more about them than him. For example, The Anxiety of Influence opens with the weirdest prologue of all time, and I’ve never heard anyone even mention it in passing, even though it is the opening chapter of the book. It is a meditation on gnosis, which means knowing, and what for Bloom meant something that united Americans interested in religion, since Bloom thought all Americans were secret Gnostics—he writes about this in The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation—by which he meant people who carried inside them a secret knowledge, spiritual, having to do with who they felt themselves to be and who they could become, like an acorn, or a seed, what Bloom termed “the daimon.” Here’s the prologue of The Anxiety of Influence:

It Was A Great Marvel That They Were In The Father Without Knowing Him

After he knew that he had fallen, outwards and downwards, away from the Fullness, he tried to remember what the Fullness had been.

He did remember, but found he was silent, and could not tell the others.

He wanted to tell them that she leapt farthest forward and fell into a passion apart from his embrace.

She was in great agony, and would have been swallowed up by the sweetness, had she not reached a limit, and stopped.

But the passion went on without her, and passed beyond the limit.

Sometimes he thought he was about to speak, but the silence continued.

He wanted to say: "strengthless and female fruit."

We can read this prologue as a koan, or an apothegm, like the sayings of Jesus, or a story by an enigmatic religious authority, like Elisha ben Abuyah. It’s not the kind of passage we crack in one reading, but something we grow with and meditate on, and I’ve been thinking about it for at least two decades, off and on, in the back of my mind. The Fullness is the world before it was created, or what there was before the world was created, in keeping with the cosmology and mythology of Gnosticism. The “he” is a human being, and therefore a representative of the kind of existential quandary that every human being finds him or herself in simply by being alive in this world. Remembering is gnosis, the weird sense of knowing who we are without being able to describe it exactly, like a feeling in the heart more than a word. “She” is wisdom, or the muse, the guide inside us that helps us make decisions, the beloved. The sweetness is a kind of power that has to spill over—a power grossness, we could say—since power has to spill over out of the danger of it being too strong in one single individual. The passion is suffering turned into acts of creative interpretation, or creativity born from suffering, and the limit is the horizon of what has been done before one in art, or any tradition one participates in. Silence is the bafflement of saying anything in a world where meaningfulness and meaninglessness seem to combine in a kind of nothingness or “ayn sof,” what is called in the Jewish mystical tradition to signify an endlessness or infinite quality that is coterminous with the Fullness and the spark of gnosis in the heart. And strengthless and female fruit—my favorite part of this passage—is the utter mysteriousness of the heart of wisdom, something that is female and that, having no strength, is strong beyond measure.

The quote is enormously informed by the teachings and surviving writings of Valentinus, a Gnostic born around 100 AD, and it can also feel intimidating, not only because of the difficulty in interpretation that it evidences, but also because it is part of a textual history of commentary that goes from the Hebrew Bible to Homer to the New Testament to Shakespeare, that is something we can't get around; something we have to confront if we call ourselves writers and artists at all. By confront I don’t mean reading everything, because that’s impossible. But it does mean reading the best works, since only by doing that can we also find our voices; and not doing so is a way of being dishonest, of not acknowledging how we became who we are as artists, or critics, or even as a culture of imagination.

George Herriman, Krazy Kat, March 9, 1920. Click to enlarge.

I think in the 21st century, though interpretation is the same thing as seeing, we are in a kind of age that values seeing more than interpretation, meaning the image is more dominant now than the word. And there is nothing wrong with that, since change is always a matter of ratios. But I think, though Bloom was the embodiment in a large sense of literature, defined in the 20th century as poetry, novels, short stories, essays, and plays, he also predicted the advent of the graphic novel as a legitimate art form that could compete on the same ground as those other literary genres and win. Bloom’s favorite poets—the first poets he read from childhood, who stayed with him his entire life, and the ones most sacred to him—were Hart Crane and William Blake; and both had fascinating commitments to the visual. Crane in his poetry wrote about Charlie Chaplin, about advertisements, about film. All poetry is a kind of obsession with images, since all poetry is obsessed with vision, and therefore with a kind of transcendental quality in consciousness connected to sight, and therefore to ocular metaphors. But Crane wrote about the visual for the 20th century, and introduced into the poetic vernacular forms of art and styles and rhythms that had not been represented in the canon before him. Same with Blake, who invented an entirely new art form that might have harkened back to illuminated books but doesn’t really seem to have any precedent at all when we consider his contribution to both the visual and literary traditions - or, better yet, the literary-visual traditions.

Graphic novels, whether underground or more intellectual, are an underground phenomena, jut as literature is, or music. Emily Dickinson wrote for the drawer; Bob Dylan writes and performs for himself and therefore millions of people; George Herriman created a new form; so did Ella Fitzgerald. These are artists who needed to create to survive. Critics are the same way. They are people so in love with art that they would drown if they didn’t write about it, because love is intense, and without distance from what we love we do drown - or, better put, we become too absorbed. Thought is something that can give us a healthy distance, so that we can think about things in a clearer light, or a muddier light, as long as it is a light that allows us to experience the fruits of our daimon, and the labors brought out, or called for, by the need of our own individual daimons. Weirdness is a stance that does not exist without thought, and therefore without criticism. Any underground worth its salt, whether as a seed or as a renaissance, needs critics to stop and say, “this is interesting for these reasons,” because without that act—the word “davar” in Hebrew means both “word” and “act,” something Bloom knew intimately; he was also fond of Nietzsche’s quote in Beyond Good and Evil, “the greatest ideas are the greatest events”—we devolve into banality, we become unweird, we are presented with too many works with no ability to sift the greater from the less interesting or accomplished, and then we ourselves becomes un-honest as individuals and communities and as a culture, and therefore not good.